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Burmese workers at Ranong Immigration

Phuket Bid to Make 20,000 Extra Burmese Legal

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
A PLAN is underway to boost the island's construction industry by helping 20,000 illegal Burmese working on Phuket to become legal.

The new strategy comes at a critical moment, by coincidence at the same time as the killer cyclone that struck Burma's heartland this week, killing thousands.

What the cyclone will do is drive still more Burmese to seek food, sanctuary and a more prosperous life along the Andaman coast of Thailand.

Some will resort to paying ''snake head'' traffickers for space on cramped and unseaworthy vessels, despite the perils of ocean travel amid monsoons at this time of year.

Others will resort to the same kind of subterfuge that on April 9 led to the deaths of 54 Burmese in an airtight container truck bound from the border town of Ranong for Phuket.

Yet those Burmese who do manage to reach Phuket now have an improved chance of finding work.

The attempt to help the construction industry find the workers it needs has been sparked by Nataya Anudit, Chief of Phuket Provincial Employment Office.

Under existing arrangements, 35,116 Burmese have ID cards and work on Phuket in a variety of industries. This is 5000 more than in 2007, but still not enough to meet demand.

Last year, Khun Nataya and representatives from leading industries on the island went to northern provinces in the Isarn region to try to attract more Thais to work in Phuket.

Isarn workers are highly regarded, especially in the construction industry. But as a result of the Phuket initiative, just nine workers came south to the island.

The problem is that Isarn workers mostly much prefer Bangkok, where wages tend to be better and home is not so far away.

Several hundred highly-rated Isarn workers failed to return to Phuket after the Songkran holiday last month because of the high price of rice and the shortage of supplies on island shelves.

This explains why Khun Nataya is now attempting to find another source of legal workers for the demanding construction industry.

Throughout June, legal Burmese will be able to renew their existing ID cards.

Meanwhile, Khun Nataya holds hope that the 20,000 illegal workers will be able to become legal if her plan is adopted at national level in Bangkok.

She has already met with the Superintendent of Phuket Immigration, Police Colonel Chanatpol Yongbunjerd, who supports the idea.

The two local leaders of Immigration and Employment hope to brief employers and other government departments on how the scheme could work.

It represents a turning-point in conflicting attitudes to the Burmese.

While Employment has traditionally struggled to find legal workers to meet the needs of Phuket's growing workforce, Immigration has been tasked with arresting and deporting illegal Burmese.

As a result of an Immigration crackdown after last month's container truck horror, more Burmese have already been arrested and taken to the border in the first four months of 2008 than almost the whole of 2007.

The latest move could represent an opportunity for long-term employers of illegal Burmese to ''come in from the cold'' and no longer have to worry where their future staff will come from.

It may be that the cyclone triggers an exodus that finally forces national and local authorities in Burma and Thailand to reach an accord on the labor flow to Thailand.

The aim should be to obliterate the evil of human trafficking and the offical corruption that accompanies it.

Similar problems exist in Phang Nga and Ranong. In Ranong, corruption is reported by NGOs to be at its worst.

Burmese workers are treated badly in factories, and human rights advocates fear the real perpetrators of the ongoing trade in human lives will yet again escape prosecution and continue to grow richer.

Khun Nataya's attention is now focussed on seeking more Thai workers in the meantime from Nakornsritamarat, a province where the workers are also highly regarded but a whole lot closer than Isarn.

A larger number of people from Nakornsritamarat already live and work on the island. Khun Nataya is making a trip there around September.

Employers interested in accompanying her should call 076 219660.

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